by Amanda Silver-Westrick
Development projects that bring clean and accessible drinking water to sub-Saharan African communities bring empowerment to women at both local and regional levels. Girls who might otherwise spend up to four hours a day walking to fetch water are free to spend that time in school. Women are suddenly granted more time to pursue income-generating activities, and more flexibility to apply for microcredit loans. These improvements are critical steps toward empowering women, promoting gender equality and increasing female self-sufficiency, which contribute to the overall social and economic stability of developing nations.
Seems easy, right? Unfortunately, international development is rarely that simple.
In order to more effectively empower African women, we must also ask ourselves: What happens next? How does a community change after the well or pipe or faucet is built and the developers leave town? The answers might surprise us.
In some African villages, women rarely leave the home. Most of their chores are domestic in nature (washing clothes, cooking meals, cleaning), and are therefore restricted to domestic boundaries. Although their daily hikes to fetch water are grueling and time-consuming, the women use the walks as an opportunity to interact with other women. They discuss problems within and between families, and they problem solve. Development projects that ignore this social and psychological outlet might be neglecting a vital aspect of village life for women. In some communities, the rate of inter-family conflict might escalate dramatically.
So how do we factor these social and psychological considerations into our own development efforts? Wells Bring Hope is unique in the world of safe water causes in that we continue to work with a community for 15-20 years after a well is drilled. Villagers are trained on how to maintain the well, where to get parts–in short, they take ownership and responsibility for the well. The government of Niger mandates that the committee who manages the well have an equal number of men and women and, while it does not always turn out to be 50-50, women have a voice for the first time in the history of their village.
We also give women access to microcredit loans in villages where we drill wells. Wells Bring Hope does not abandon communities after instigating change, leaving women to flounder in their newfound isolation. Our projects empower communities, and women within them, to take part in their own development.